Pussy Riot: Overrated, overhyped and hopefully all over
Imagine if three Arab girls had done an impromptu song and dance routine inside a mosque in Saudi Arabia, shouting slogans against the al-Saud royal family. My guess is their trial wouldn’t have lasted very long and you don't have to be a law expert to predict the outcome. At any rate, women aren’t allowed inside mosques.
Of course, Russia isn’t Saudi Arabia so the comparison is a bit of a stretch. But you get the point – a place of worship is not the right platform for conducting a guerrilla protest, especially if you are a group of musicians with an outrageous name like Pussy Riot.
Yes, you can have too much freedom
‘‘Freedom of expression is a very important right,” Dr Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist and religion expert, said in an interview with Interfax last week. “I understand concerns about it. However, there is a mistaken idea in some circles that freedom of expression should have no limits. Of course, freedom of expression has limits.”
The Russian punk group crossed those limits when it desecrated a Moscow cathedral. Indeed, what is being sidestepped in this debate is that the women at the epicentre of this affair committed a cognisable offence. Dr Introvigne says for what they did inside a place of worship, the three women would have been booked in the West. “If the group entered the cathedral in Moscow and performed a song including obscene words aimed at the Church, the Patriarch and religion – not only at political Russian figures, as some Western media have incorrectly reported – this would have been regarded as a crime under the law of any Western country,” he says.
“Freedom of expression does not include the right to enter a cathedral and shout insults at religion…If words such as 'bitch' and 'shit' were used in the song, it would be illegal under American, Italian, or European Union law."
Crossing the limits
There is a lot about the tune-challenged punk group the media won’t tell you. Perhaps Pussy Riot's particoloured balaclavas and oh-so-cute antics have disarmed writers and commentators. But while the media may say 'let not facts stand in the way of a good story', courts, however, don't work that way. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich, the three members of the group, rightly got slapped with a two-year prison sentence.
For, the punk band has done things that are not just scandalous, but horrifying. In fairness to the media, that's not something journalists can handle easily because Pussy Riot's acts are beyond description. The women can barely sing, but they can surely shock and offend. For the media, the only way is to pussyfoot around the issue.
In one instance, members of the band walked into a Russian supermarket and one of them did an unspeakable act with a frozen chicken while another filmed it. The women then walked out with the chicken embedded, without paying.
Another time they painted a human phallus on the side of a bridge in St Petersburg, Russia. It could be seen a mile away. Would you have wanted your children to see that?
This is what Pussy Riot truly represents. Senseless profanity in the name of freedom of expression. Their name is chosen to appeal to a worldwide, especially Western, audience. Imagine if it had a Russian name like киска бунт (Keeska Bunt), which Google Translate says is the literal translation of the name. Who would waste their time on them?
By neatly including Vladimir Putin in their protest, Pussy Riot has created a perfect storm where the basic human desire to protect freedom ties in with the West’s demonisation of the Russian leader as a tyrant. Quite simply, it takes the world's gaze off from their own anti-democracy acts.
Such as the witch hunt of Julian Assange, who is holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy even as Britain has threatened to storm the embassy. What kind of country would storm an embassy? Even in the coldest days of the Cold War, the Russians and Americans never bandied out such threats when their citizens (or spies) sought shelter in each other's missions. While it is perhaps a pointer to the tattered state of British diplomacy, it also reveals who the silencers of free speech are.
The real demo-crazies
The wealthiest democracy: In the United States, Bradley Manning, the soldier who leaked classified American documents to Wikileaks, has been in solitary confinement for 822 days - without trial. Undoubtedly he is being subjected to torture - sleep deprivation, water hosing and loud music - to dissuade future leakers.
The oldest democracy: Britain is the home to any number of subversive agents - subversive of the other side. Chechen terrorists are routinely given shelter in London. Back in the 1980s, Sikh and Kashmiri terrorists from India were freely given asylum in Britain. This, of course, encouraged more terror acts in India. Today, such folks don't get the red carpet in Britain any more. Is it anything to do with the fact that Vodafone is the second largest mobile company in India?
Last week, the UK's Daily Mail published an article describing Ecuador as "a world of fear under a Left-wing dictator who responds to dissent with an iron fist". Really? This "dictator", the country's president Rafael Correa, has been elected twice with overwhelming majorities. The fairness of these elections has never been questioned by any country. And the semi-educated reporter who wrote this article perhaps doesn't know that Correa has a PhD in economics.
The largest democracy: Last week tens of thousands of minority Indian Muslims rioted in several cities in India, burning police cars and OB vans, desecrating a memorial for Indian Army soldiers, thrashing up members of the media (some were hospitalised with serious injuries), and causing billions of dollars worth of damage. Videos of these rioters were not shown on national television, as India's leftist media pussyfooted around the issue. However, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, many of these rioters were identified, including one man who snatched a rifle from a policeman (incredibly, the cops were under strict orders to do nothing). The Indian government is censoring social media. Facebook and YouTube have pulled the photos and videos of rioting Muslims. Parody Twitter accounts of Indian politicians were taken down. And India calls itself a democracy. Give me a break.
(Oh, incidentally, according to last year's press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, press freedom in Ecuador is well ahead of India.)
After the three Pussy Riot women were handed a two-year prison term, the Obama administration issued a statement soaked in its own crocodile tears: “The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences... and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia.”
The New Yorker said the verdict means non-conformist Russians will be “neutralised and alienated just as they are increasingly anxious to make a difference. And this means that the women of Pussy Riot are not the last victims”.
You have to admit they are at the very least consistent. For, it seems the American template for criticising Russia hasn’t changed much since the Reagan years because not everyone is being judged by the same yardstick.
In 1991 when Boris Yeltsin’s tanks fired live rounds at the Russian parliament, the mostly Western media, which had ringside seats, hailed him as a hero, all the while cheering the murder of elected parliamentarians holed up inside.
Today the gulf sheiks, the biggest collection of dictators in the world, get a free pass because they do America’s bidding. “Where was the Obama administration’s indignation at the far more disproportionate government response to pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain last year?” writes Brett Wilkins of the San Francisco-based Digital Journal. “Dozens were killed by the US-backed ruling al-Khalifa monarchs, just for speaking out against repression and for the freedom America claims to champion. Hundreds were arrested and tortured; anyone suspected of opposing the royal regime was subject to arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture and death.”
“Brutal state security services raided schools, torturing and threatening to rape girls as young as 12,” adds Wilkins. “Doctors and other medical personnel who treated wounded protesters were arrested and tortured as well. Female doctors were tortured with electric shocks, beaten with nail-studded boards and threatened with rape. Some were forced to eat feces. All were tortured to elicit false confessions. Then 47 doctors and nurses were tried and convicted of treason for doing their jobs.”
Waiting for failure
America's problem is not that Pussy Riot has been sentenced. It has more to do with the fact that there is not enough chaos in Russia. In July 2010 a Moscow court convicted two art curators of inciting religious hatred by organising an exhibit that included paintings depicting Jesus as Mickey Mouse and Lenin. The court slapped the curators with heavy fines.
Here is the New York Times’ reaction: “Two decades after government-imposed prudishness ended with the Soviet collapse, Russians still shy away from embracing European-style sexual mores. Despite a burst of licentiousness in the early 1990s, when pornography and prostitution surged through the country, the sexual revolution has never really taken hold here.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Essentially the editors at the Times are ranting there is not enough licentiousness, pornography and prostitution in Russia. The 1990s were a period of great hardship and humiliation for most Russians but the country bounced back in little more than a decade. Russia’s return to normalcy and middle class sobriety is what galls the New York Times and by extension the American elites.
Russia's existential crisis
Right now Russia’s leaders and the Russian Orthodox Church are together working on something as existential as the country’s birth rate. Perhaps it was the small size of the Soviet Union’s apartments or the difficulty faced by young couples in getting one, perhaps it was the high expectations from women, but whatever the reason, under the communists there was a steep decline in the Russian birth rate.
The trend was clear during the 1980s at the height of Moscow’s power – ethnic Russians were destined to be a minority in their own country. It worsened during the lost post-Soviet decades and by 2000 Russia’s fertility had fallen to 1.25 children per female, far below the replacement level of 2.1 needed to maintain the population. Quite literally, Russians were disappearing from the face of the earth.
Putin has revived the Kremlin’s traditional ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. He wants the church to guide the country out of a demographic dead-end. The time to act is now when the critical mass of population remains, and Russia can still bounce back. People may not listen to politicians but Russians, it is hoped, won't ignore the church's directives if it's in good faith.
In Asia Times, Spengler writes about how the West refuses to understand where Moscow is coming from: "Putin has embarked on a monstrous enterprise….European Russia is dying, and Muslims will compose a majority of citizens of the Russian Federation by as early as 2040. But the successors of Imperial Russia, the Third Rome after the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453, refuse to slide without a struggle into the digestive tract of the House of Islam.
"Western Europe may go with a whimper rather than a bang as Muslim immigrants replace the shrinking local population, but the Russians have no such intention. Putin and his comrades will employ all the guile and violence at their command to delay the decline of European Russia. The Europeans are the emasculated remnant of a fallen civilization; for better or worse, the Russians still are real men. Putin is playing a Great Game in Central Asia, comparable in scope to the long duel with Britain during the 19th century, but with a difference: Russia's object is no longer imperial, but existential."
However, if punk bands like Pussy Riot are allowed to run down the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin's project becomes difficult to implement.
Clash of religions
While 70 percent of Russians identify with the Orthodox Church, most are only nominally religious. However, their religiosity is increasing and they see the church as truly representing Russian values. (Incidentally, a large number of agnostic or atheistic Russians living in New Zealand attend church on special occasions such as Christmas precisely because of this reason.) Just like Christianity was the glue that united Europe against the Turks at the gates of Vienna, it is Orthodoxy that Russians believe will preserve their national ethos.
This isn’t being alarmist. In Sakhalin, for instance, an extremely aggressive born again church has converted nearly all the Korean settlers on that island. The once nominally Buddhist Koreans existed in complete harmony with other nominally Christian Russians as well as Nivkhs, Oroks, Evenks and Yakuts but the conversion of the Koreans has pitted them against the others groups. Now the European Russians are feeling the pressure from a highly evangelistic and pushy minority, who are cornering land and business, under guidance from their church leaders.
Putin’s new bill against aggressive activities by minority religious groups is designed to stop such flash points. It is also intended to keep the primacy of Russia’s national church intact. And why can’t Russia’s leaders place their church first when American Presidents give the Southern Baptists a wide berth? Didn't former US president George W. Bush and his sidekick (or controller) Donald Rumsfeld keep the church in the loop while formulating state policy?
Incidentally, the Hare Krishna group (those shaven headed types who habitually dance in the streets and hassle you into buying their books) has got caught in the crossfire between the churches. But think about it, just as Hindus wouldn’t want evangelist churches running amok in India, Moscow is understandably worried about foreign churches and religions orienting Russians in an alien direction.
In the past Russian police have cracked down on Lutheran churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It has nothing to with democracy; Moscow isn't taking any chances. It knows that in the past the CIA has used American churches for kick-starting rebellions in several developing countries. Aircraft owned by American churches have been used to drop weapons for guerrilla groups. There’s no guarantee the Americans are not doing it now. In fact, the orchestrated protest at a Russian-built nuclear power plant in southern India earlier this year is a classic example of how the Americans use Indian evangelist churches and local NGOs to further their agenda.
What Russians feel
The punk band has predictably slammed the “lawless verdict”. And a husband of one of the Pussy Riot members said, “What Putin wants, Putin Gets.”
However, such sweeping generalisations are rubbished by Vladimir Legoyda, the head of the Synodal Information Department of the Moscow Patriarchate. In a statement to the press, he said attempts are being made to make the Church an “opposition force” and there are some political and public figures who will always be negative about the Church until it starts speaking negatively about the authorities.
“They expect the Church to follow the logic of a political party, which in their opinion has to be an opposition party,” he said. “However, the Church will never become a force that is in opposition to the administration. The Church had relations with the state even under the Soviets. Why shouldn't it have relations with the state now?”
Opinion polls seem to agree with that view. A few young metropolitan Russians may rage and rant, but only 6 per cent of Russians have any sympathy for Pussy Riot. In an August poll by the Levada Centre less than 1 per cent said they respect the band. Over 50 per cent of Russians showed negative opinions of Pussy Riot, and 31 per cent showed “irritation” and “dislike”.
If the West is hoping the trail will make Putin less popular, that’s wishful thinking. Asked who was responsible for initiating the prosecution, 23 per cent said it is the wider church community, 19 per cent said the Russian Orthodox Church and only 9 per cent pointed their finger at the “Presidential Administration”.
Putin is clearly the beneficiary of this episode. Russians see Pussy Riot as representative of the fashionable and pro-West elements that are arrayed against ordinary people. It also presents a vexing dilemma for Pussy Riot. The more the West backs their case, the more strongly they get identified as anti-national agents.
The three women may not after all serve their two-year sentence and could get away with a shorter incarceration, if they win their appeal. But if they launch another guerrilla performance in yet another church, or worse inside the Kremlin, they could very well be slapped with a ban. For, while all this is entertainment to the world, the Russians are sick of it.
Rakesh Krishnan considers himself an infidel. His articles have been used as reference at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; the Centre for Research on Globalization, Canada; Wikipedia; and as part of the curriculum at the Anthropology Department of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Oped News, Pennsylvania; and Rossiyskaya Gazeta Group, Moscow, among others.